Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cape Town #3

Friends: It looks as if I just might wind down my final week in South Africa hanging out in Cape Town taking advantage of all this city has to offer. It justifiably turns up on many lists of the ten greatest cities in the world. It has a spectacular setting at the tip of the continent with many great beaches and the flat-topped Table Mountain overlooking it and a vibrant population and many museums and cultural events.

Initially I thought I'd take a final five or six day mini-tour up the Atlantic coast through the wine country and to one of the two largest penguin colonies in Africa and have a few final nights of wild-camping, but after the Cape Doctor blew itself out Monday morning, the ovenish heat returned. There are fires raging in the wine country, making the temperatures even more scorching. And not knowing when the ferocious winds might stir up again, I wouldn't want to be too far away to get back in time for my flight next Tuesday afternoon.

I don't seem to be imposing on Ian. I'm staying in the guest bedroom at his company's office in a residential area at the foot of Table Mountain, a mile from the down town, a perfect place to be. Ian lives 15 miles away over a ridge on the opposite coast, right along the Argus route. His business partner lives just a couple blocks from the office, but he's off in Jo-burg for the week working on a project and Ian is busy on one of his own. Their company, Action Safety, provides stunt co-ordinating and rigging for the film and entertainment industry.

Ian felt great sympathy for the Cape Argus riggers. Many of their signs and structures had to be taken down before they were blown down. There was no finish line banner for everyone to pass under and have their photograph taken this year. The start of the Argus is in a down town plaza that is a popular place for film projects. Ian has had many assignments there and has frequently had to say no to directors when the winds were too extreme.

Sunday's winds were about as extreme as they get. Only 26,500 of the 35,000 race registrants even started. The number who finished won't be revealed until Friday when all their times will fill a special section of the Cape Argus newspaper. I met a 45-year old woman the day after the race who quit after 15 miles. She had ridden the race the year before and intends to return next year. She was most frustrated that she had to wait two hours before she was rescued by a support vehicle, as there were so many people needing rescue.

There were quite a few crashes. The newspapers were full of photos of riders in different degrees of being blown down. There were far fewer serious accidents than usual though, as people were going so slow and there were so many fewer rides on the course. There were 71 accidents requiring medical attention, with 32 sent to hospital and 19 held over night. One cyclist lost his bike when he was blown off the road and his bicycle went tumbling down a steep cliff into the ocean.

When I went to bed Sunday night, the winds were still howling. Fortunately they died down so I could take the ferry out to the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated during the '60s, '70s and '80s. It was assembly line tourism, but a required trip. The nine a.m. ferry was near its 250 passenger capacity. During the half-hour, seven-mile journey we were shown a video that gave us a history of the island. It was an early safe haven for the Europeans in the years after the Portuguese sailor Bartholomeu Dias was the first European to reach it in 1487. The Europeans feared the inhabitants on the continent were cannibals. There were many seals and penguins on the island for food. It was initially called Penguin Island, but the Dutch were more impressed by the seals and renamed it Robben (seal in Dutch) Island. The penguins were soon wiped out, but they were reintroduced in 1983. There are presently 60,000 of them on the island, the third largest colony in Africa.

In time the island became a prison. It was also a leper colony for nearly a century and also a place to isolate mental patients. When we arrived on the island five buses awaited us, each with a guide. We were taken on a 45-minute tour on a portion of the 7.5 mile circumference of the island, the guide repeating much of what we had learned on the ferry. We paused at several sights, but there was only one stop where we were permitted off the bus, at a vantage looking back at Cape Town. Many were disappointed we couldn't wander around and photograph the limestone quarry where Mandela and many of the prisoners labored for eight hours a day in extreme heat, many, including Mandela, suffering damage to their eyes from the glare and the dust.

After the bus trip we were handed off to another guide for a 30-minute walk through the prison, culminating with Mandela's cell where he slept on the floor for 18 years and wrote his autobiography, "The Long March to Freedom." All the prison guides had been former political prisoners. He reveled in telling of his release in 1990 after the recently elected prime minister FW de Klerk decided to end apartheid and free all the political prisoners. The video had shown a group of them on a boat taking them back to Cape Town singing and dancing triumphantly. The prison was closed down to all prisoners in 1996, as it became too expensive to maintain, and then was turned into a shrine shortly thereafter. In 1999 it was designated a World Heritage site. Not far from the ferry were several hundred of 18-inch tall penguins, some swimming, some hiding in the shade of the trees, and many just standing on the beach looking out towards Cape Town.

There were no seals to be seen around Robben Island, but there were a few swimming in the Cape Town Harbor. The waterfront had dozens of outdoor cafes and shops selling trinkets for tourists. One plaza had statues of the four South Africans to have won the Nobel Peace Prize--Albert Luthali in 1960, Desmond Tutu in 1984 and de Klerk and Mandela in 1993.

My Tuesday outing was a test ride out to the airport to verify the route and to verify that my bike box was still there. Ian used the google aerial map to provide me a better route than the tourist office had. I managed to go astray, taking the wrong artery out of a roundabout and was forced to ask several people for directions. I was on mostly four-lane wide roads with fast flowing traffic, so even when I ended up passing through a township I wasn't concerned. I stopped at a supermarket when I saw four fairly well dressed young black men standing along the road. Very often when I stop to ask a black for directions, they are initially stunned that a white is approaching them for help. Most quickly warm up and are most cordial. But not always. And that was the case with these guys. They gave me that mean menacing stare as if they were wishing that this wasn't such a conspicuous spot, otherwise they would wring my neck on the spot. Not a one responded to my query if Viking Road was up ahead or if I had passed it. They snuck quick glances at each other as if expressing disbelief that this sucker had stopped to talk to them, not realizing what dangerous hombres they were and looking for a signal that they ought to do this guy in. Ian had earlier warned me that when I went hiking on Table Mountain to join up with others, but if by chance I couldn't and came upon any lingering blacks, if they "looked Nigerian turn and run." I wasn't sure what Nigerian looked like, but it would have been something like these guys, so I didn't persist, and quickly made my getaway.

I feared Ian might take me to task for mentioning too often the dangerous side of South Africa, but he acknowledges I have experienced it as it is and have seen a side of South Africa that most tourists are protected from. A couple guys tried to break into his house the day before he returned, but a neighbor scared them off. He doesn't want to put a fence around his house, but instead will put in lights with motion detectors. His office has an alarm system. A sign on the building says it is protected by Armed Response. I see their trucks drifting around the city at all hours on patrol, ready to respond.

A story in Sunday's paper had a litmus test to see whether one was a true South African. Several were crime related. According to the test, one is a true South African if, "When you're a victim of a crime, you say, 'At least I'm still alive,'" and "You consider it a good month when you only get mugged once." South Africans are rugby fanatics. One is a true South African, "When you know the rules of rugby better than any referee." Mini-van taxis are a scourge all over the country and are reviled by all. I was nearly side-swiped several times on my way out to the airport during the morning rush hour. A true South African knows enough "to wait when the light turns green for a taxi or two to go through the red light."

I was happy to have scouted out the route to the airport, as I won't make any mistakes next time. And I was thrilled to see that my bike box was still in the closet I left it in. The young black woman who allowed me to leave the box with her immediately recognized me and lit up with as much delight to see me as I did to see my box. That wasn't the only good news for the day. Ian sent me to a camera shop that was able to open my camera and save a roll of film that I had only been able to half rewind when the plastic rewind cylinder broke. They might even be able to repair it.

I was also able to spend three hours in a small suburban library reading a book about a South African who cycled the perimeter of Africa from Sept. of 2003 to Sept. of 2005, passing through all 34 coastal countries. The library had no air conditioning or fans, but I was able to sit in the cool shade of its garden with Table Mountain looming over. It had no drinking fountain. Instead it offered a pitcher of water with a bucket of ice cubes along side. There was also a pitcher of orange juice. The water was free. The orange juice was 30 cents a glass. The library is only open from ten to twelve tomorrow, when I'll be climbing Table Mountain, so I'll have to wait until Thursday when it is open from two until 7:30 to resume my reading.

Later, George

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